Clara Mae knew most folks would be surprised to see her back at the Kountry Korner so soon.
Her bosses were not among them.
Bob and Jeff co-owned the Kountry Korner, and they disliked being out of money even more than they disliked being bothered. And Dan’s death, though they liked him well enough, was both a financial drain and a bother. Police, cleaning people, yellow tape, the days of being closed. The day after Dan was shot the town drunk ran down a power line next to the store. It was before the floor-cleaning folks had gotten there, and even though it was November they still needed the air conditioning; the east-facing plate glass magnified the heat, melting the counter-candy and leaving the air with an unmistakable odor of soured blood and Junior Mints.
Quite the bother.
So Bob had brought her flowers (picked from the wife’s garden) and Jeff had given her a week off (unpaid, of course), and by Sunday she gotten the call “just making sure” that she was going to be able to come in Monday. “Because it was okay if she couldn’t” but Clara could tell from his tone that it wasn’t okay, and she already knew (though they didn’t know that she knew) that they were only worried because they were going to Euleton on a fishing trip and were ready to go back to making money and not being bothered.
She went back to her regular routine this morning: awake at 5am, made drop biscuits and fried eggs and too-strong coffee, put on a load of laundry, ate while watching Andy Griffith. Gerald didn’t always wake up with her, but this morning he did, and the two drank their coffee together in sleepy silence. He even dropped her off, and this time she felt like he didn’t just do it because he needed the car.
“Pick me up at three,” she said.
“I’ll be here,” said Gerald.
Clara Mae didn’t reckon she would see too many people in the store today, anyway. It had opened back up a few days earlier, but people were still keeping their distance, out of respect or sorrow or just the natural human avoidance of the reminders of death—collective denial that there is, in fact, an end.
But just because the folks weren’t there didn’t mean they didn’t talk. She and Dan had together been fixtures at the Kountry Korner, local icons, mother and son. The aisles of the local commissary were filled with whispers of how “strong” she was, the lines at the bank abuzz with hushed voices of awe and pity. But turning the key to unlock the store in the morning, Clara Mae didn’t feel strong. She opened the door with a bit of guilt and pleasure—the delight of scratching an itch until bleeding. She stepped inside and inhaled deeply, relishing the prospect of a day of quiet, obsessive wallowing.
No one would deny her this.
Clara Mae turned the sign to “Open.” As a low fog lifted off the poorly paved road a grey hatchback drove by, slowing in front of the station, then speeding up as it passed. Another rubberneck. She was glad to see it pass her by.
She slid onto the swivel-stool like she’d seen Dan do every day and counted out the register. Her eyes scanned the slats of the drawer for missed splatters of blood as she counted, a DNA memento untouched from the cleanup, but found nothing. She closed the drawer.
She ran her hands over the keys, thumbed through coupons, food stamps, receipts. Even the ashtray was unnaturally clean, not even a trace of grey film in its belly as she dragged her finger across.
She wasn’t sure what she was looking for. But she was looking.
She looked through the cigarette packs above her head, looked through the aisles for any fingerprints in the dust, any signs of shifted boxes. She stood in the cooler for a good long time—longer than she liked—feeling the cold, feeling enclosed, peering out from the dark recesses of storage. Through the rows of green Mountain Dew bottles she could see the distant light of the store, blurry but visible, like seeing the sun while deep under water. But there again she found nothing. No evidence he had been there. No precious connection with his last moments. No message from the great beyond. Just normal.
She made sure the parking lot was empty, that no one was looking, and then got down on her knees, crawling at first and then eventually shimmying belly-down through the aisles, looking under.
And then, she saw them.
A dusty scattering of tiny cardboard tubes and wicks, a secret stash of firecrackers intended for pranks Dan had long forgotten. There weren’t many of them; maybe a half dozen “ladyfingers” an inch-and-a-half long scattered under the TV stand. Clara picked them up and wiped each one free of dust before placing them on the counter neatly in a row like birthday candles. As a kid that had been Dan’s favorite joke, trick candles, and he always had a box on hand to swap out with the regular ones. The family could tell their signature peppermint stripe from the plain, solid white that Clara Mae bought, so they all secretly knew to expect them to come back to life, but they played along, gasping in frustration at the relight. Everyone would do anything to hear Dan laugh.
She hadn’t cried all day, busying herself with pseudo-detective work, but at that moment the tears came again. They came at the same time she heard a car cresting the drive, and Clara struggled to quell them: biting her lip, blowing her nose, wiping her eyes, blinking. She fussed over herself in the mirror, but she soon realized she needn’t have—the car was a familiar maroon sedan, belonging to Miss Evie.
Miss Evie was nosy, a busybody, and socially awkward; she was the kind of woman who would settle in on your couch and stay after everyone had gone to bed, never taking the hint that it was time to leave. Clara, of course, was too nice and too Southern to say it outright. Over time Miss Evie’s needy personality grew to fit easily into Clara Mae’s need to be needed, their symbiotic relationship merging to genuine lifelong friendship.
Miss Evie had been working at the Kountry Korner for going on eight years, near as long as Dan. Clara Mae had gotten Dan his job, and she had also gotten Miss Evie hired to clean. Miss Evie needed the work after her husband left her with nothing; she wasn’t particularly good at cleaning at first, but Clara and Dan felt bad for her and covered for her when needed. Eventually she got better at it, more out of coming up with excuses to hang around for hours, but it worked. Dan had a kind of distain for Miss Evie because of her hovering, and Miss Evie had a bit of competitiveness with Dan for Clara’s attention, but despite their love-hate relationship Miss Evie was inconsolable when Dan passed. She hadn’t been back to the Kountry Korner since he died. She hadn’t really left her house to speak of. Clara Mae knew she hadn’t; Miss Evie rented the trailer in her backyard, and she could see her every coming and going. But she knew Clara would need her today, so she here she was.
She came in wearing a t-shirt, purple polyester pants, and oversized Foster Grants; an angelic, doe-eyed Tweety Bird in a halo proclaimed on the shirt in pink scripty letters: “Ain’t I TWEET?” She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head, making her frizzy light brown hair stand out even more at the temples.
“You had a busy morning?” Miss Evie asked.
Clara Mae shook her head. “Naw. Nobody came in. Not a one.”
“I figured as much. Probably not a thing to clean up, neither,” Evie said.
“No, I guess not.”
“Been hard on you this morning?”
“Yeah, you bet, it’s hard. But makes me feel close to him again in a weird way,” Clara said, her eyes glancing over the firecrackers again.
“How are Kathy and the girls? I’m praying for ‘em.”
“The girls… they’ve had it rough. Hard to tell how much they’ve really processed yet. Kathy is devastated, but—”
“She keeps posting on Facebook, things about being a widow, posting her pictures to his memorial page. I mean, I know she is hurting. But typical Kathy, has to make it all about her. I almost expect her to start taking donations.”
“Oh, I heard that, too.”
“What do you mean? About her Facebook?”
“No. About her donations.”
“Donations?” Clara repeated.
Miss Evie lowered her head. “I heard that she was asking at church for donations. That Dan didn’t leave her anything—”
Clara Mae’s temple started to throb. Didn’t leave her anything! Clara knew Dan didn’t have much, partly because of Kathy—spending, refusing to work—but the little he did have he left entirely to Kathy and the girls. A little insurance money. A small savings account. Their car. Not much, sure, but enough. And Clara had covered the small funeral from her empty pockets. How could she? Her face burned with shame to think about her daughter-in-law begging to Dan’s congregation, as if he had not provided for his own. Clara felt like she was in a fog.
“Maybe she didn’t ask for it. Maybe some of the church elders thought they would help her,” Clara said. “Surely she wouldn’t have—”
“I don’t think so, Clara. I think it came from her. I heard she gave testimony in night church. They said it was moving,” Miss Evie said.
“And people gave her money?”
“He said lots of money,” Miss Evie said. “Hey, maybe she wants to surprise you when she chips in on the funeral.”
“I would never want to take their money! She knows that,” Clara said. “Well, maybe they had more money problems than I knew about. A boy doesn’t always tell his mama everything. I’ll talk to her.”
Miss Evie hung around the Kountry Korner for a few more hours, long enough to share a lunch of cheese sandwiches with plenty of Miracle Whip, but still leaving in plenty of time to catch her soaps. Jeff had hired his nephew to replace Dan’s shift. With the invincible air of the twenty-something, he wasn’t rattled by the fate of his predecessor; his sights were on the beer cooler and its infinite possibilities after the sun set on Tippashaw County. This would end badly—probably Jeff even knew it as well—but for now the sacrifice of some malt liquor was worth it to Jeff to avoid being the man behind the counter this evening.
The nephew was fifteen minutes late, taking his post in a flurry of disingenuous “yes, m’am”s. Gerald was late, too, and she gave him until 3:20 before she walked outside to try him on his cell. No answer.
She tried him again: once, twice, three times. She tried Miss Evie, knowing that she turned her phone off during her stories. Nothing.
She stood under the overhang shivering a bit; the air had finally started turning cold. She knew he had just been drinking, stopped at The Hay Bale for a beer or brought a case home. Maybe he’d lost his phone. Or was ignoring her from the shame of the binge. Or was in a deep drunk slumber on his bed at home. But no matter what she told herself—or how many times she had been through this very situation—her head still pictured the worst: him careening off the road, empty cans in the backseat, car flipping over, blood.
The twenty-something was looking at her through the plate glass like he thought he should say something, so she started off walking toward home. She called him again: four, five, six, seven. Still no answer.
Damn him for making me worry like this!
There was no sidewalk and barely even a shoulder on the side of the road where she walked. It had begun to drizzle a fine icy mist; her teeth chattered even as she tried to clench her jaw. Her joints reliably answered the pending rain with their throbbing chorus, a dull ache that gave her a little limp.
As she passed the kudzu-covered fence by the Elderidge Farm a man leaned from his truck and shouted, “Work it, baby!” before driving on. She laughed, wiping a bit of tear-and-rain streaked mascara from her cheek, and thought, Is the sarcasm really necessary?
By the time she got to Sweetwater Road she was soaked to the bone. Cold. So cold she wasn’t looking around, so cold she nearly missed the car—her car, their car—buried well off the shoulder and into the thick of the wooded area. She couldn’t see much, but she could tell it was their car from the trunk—the distinctive patch of paint peeled off of the lid dark and asymmetrical, like a cancerous mole.
It was still a good walk to the car, and Clara strained to see if her husband was there. Then she could see it—the silhouette of a head against the head rest. And she ran, ankle-deep in the muck of the wet woods, watching the head to see if it moved, but instead there was only stillness.